Donald Soper was born in South London in 1903 to strict Methodist parents. He read history at Cambridge and took his PhD at London University. As a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, he became the nation’s best-known pacifist. One of the leaders of the first Aldermaston March in 1958, he regularly spoke on Tower Hill and made Kingsway Hall, his London Methodist base, a centre for radical, pacifist resistance for over fifty years. He was chairman of Shelter from 1974-8 and was president of the League against Cruel Sports for twenty years. Created a life peer in 1965, he died in 1998, aged ninety-four.
I found Lord Soper easy to talk to, unlike some who were prickly and unashamedly self-involved. It was a welcome change to meet someone who was perfectly at ease with any question one pitched to him without being embarrassed or offended. Needless to say, I liked him a lot.
My interview with him was reprinted in my anthology Of a Certain Age. Andro Linklater in his review in the Spectator said I made a ‘good interviewer’. He thought me:
indiscreet enough to ask Lord Soper about masturbation and von Bülow about rumours of murdering his mother, and above all sufficiently sensitive to let them espouse their true character. It is an indolent way of making a book, but the result is unexpectedly satisfying. I hope St Peter will study Attallah’s technique when it comes to dividing the sheep from the goats. It will make Heaven a place worth getting to.
My interview with Claus von Bülow can wait for another occasion, but here is my encounter with the redoubtable Donald Soper.
If I were to ask you for a profession of religious faith, what would it include? And perhaps more interestingly, what would it exclude?
I am professing Christian in the sense that for me Jesus Christ is the centre of my thinking and the dynamic power for the kind of life I want to live. I find in the Christian faith centred upon Jesus, the expression of that which I find inarticulate in myself. Christianity for me is therefore the endeavour to copy and fulfil in my life those elements of truth and goodness which I have found in Jesus Christ, and in the Christian church. This does not by any means exclude a devotion to the literature of Christianity but it’s certainly not the same thing as an attitude of acceptance of the word of God, so to speak, because the word of God comes to us only through the very imperfect media of human beings. I’m therefore not a sabbatarian and I’m certainly not fundamentalist in the sense that I regard the Bible as the final authority. The final authority is a spiritual concept which is fragile but very real.
How orthodox do you think your religious views are? Do you think orthodoxy matters all that much?
I don’t think that orthodoxy matters until you put it in its true context. Orthodoxy for the primitive church was a very important element in the continuing story of Christianity. If, however, we take orthodoxy in the sense of the various commitments in theological terms that the Christian Church has made from time to time, I find some of them disturbing, some of them impossible, and most of them fundamentally irrelevant.
Isn’t there a case for saying that very liberal clergymen give scandal to the faithful? There appear, for example, to be clergymen who don’t believe in God and yet they are supposed to have the fullness of the faith. You appear to think that God is a vindictive old man and to deny the divinity of Christ. Is there anything left besides a sort of kindly rationalism?
I do not deny the existence of God and I do not deny the divinity of Jesus, but I am conscious of the fragile nature of what is called the vocabulary of Christian thinking. Many of the greatest truths of the Christian faith go far beyond our capacity to put them into precise words; God is altogether too mighty and too profound. The very word conveys, or should convey, profundities which are better expressed in Pascal than in a great deal of the theological documents which I’m invited to read and subscribe to. With regard to Jesus, I have always believed that if you can be sure of his humanity, his divinity will look after itself. But if you start with some concept of divinity you may never get down to the basic reality of his common humanity with us. It is for me a fundamental fact that if Jesus is divine, it may be impossible for me to follow in his steps, but if he is circumscribed within the humanities that I have to put up with, then I can look up to him as leader as well as lord.
But do you still believe that God is a vindictive old man?
Of course I don’t. I believe that God is a word we use to describe all kinds of personal attitudes which have nothing to do with the ultimate truth whatsoever. I have never tried to define God because I believe a definition is an impossibility. It’s only when I find God in terms which I can understand, that is to say in the life of Jesus, that the reality of God comes home to me. Otherwise God is the ultimately mysterious entity. Pascal’s final argument for God’s existence was that there has to be a reason for there being anything at all, and I’m content with that. I have a very imperfect piece of machinery with which to make sense of the life all around me, but what I can do is see in a human person those qualities and elements in the nature of God which I think are real.
If your views are heterodox, what is it exactly that you preach? It can hardly be ‘Christ crucified’ in the traditional evangelical mode.
You’re asking a question which depends on what we mean by evangelism. I do not believe that evangelism is the proclamation of some kind of completely faultless doctrine and offer of salvation. And therefore for me heterodoxy is the necessary care that I have to take to realize that everything that does come to me from God or through Jesus Christ comes through the very imperfect channel of human life. Jesus was not faultless but he was divine in the sense that he made a complete acceptance to God instead of what for everybody else is a partial and imperfect one.
There has been a good deal of controversy in recent years about the relationship between religion and politics. Mrs Thatcher’s effort to convert the General Assembly to capitalism was one example. But should they not in some sense be distinct spheres? After all Christ said: ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’
But Jesus also said: ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and its righteousness’, which is very much in this world. His acceptance of leadership when he entered Jerusalem was a plain acceptance of the fact the for him the gospel was the good news of the fulfilment of God’s purposes in so far as they can be fulfilled on this planet and in human affairs. For me the distinction between piety and politics is a very imperfect one. I am quite sure – and this comes from my experience of being a parson for so many years – that in ninety-nine cases out of every hundred our personal belief has a deep and clear relationship to our economic and political environment. And therefore the kingdom of God is far more important than the seeking of some personal identity when I die. The Christian Church time and time again has not been prepared to face the pacifism that is the essence of the teaching of Jesus, with the result that Christian propagandists have very largely concerned themselves with private piety, which is a very imperfect representation of what you can read in the Sermon on the Mount.
You once described your socialism as a logical consequence of your religious faith. Has your faith in socialism ever been shaken – Maxwell was a socialist after all. Socialist rhetoric can surely sound as hollow as the capitalist sort, in that they both seem to be endemically self-serving.
The sting is in the tail. Let me deal with the substance before I get to the tail. I have very frequently lost my faith in socialists, but I can say, without undue pride, that I have never lost my faith in socialism. It’s not been tried and found wanting; it’s been found difficult and not tried. So much of what passes for socialism today is in fact an acceptance of compromises which I feel are unworthy, and though I don’t pretend to be looking for a martyr’s crown, I’m quite sure that we haven’t been prepared to pay the price for the socialism we’ve advocated. In that sense, the programme of our Christian faith increasingly has to be knitted together with the economic and political structure of society. I have never doubted that the second strongest thing in the universe is sin. That is to say, it doesn’t surprise me when I find people not living up to the standards they profess, or not accepting the consequences of what they profess. That applies to me as much as to everyone else. It is a constant struggle. I wish I knew more about Maxwell – for one reason. I’ve been a prison chaplain and a practising parson, which has given me an increased and deepened sense that if you get to the bottom of things you’ll find that people are better than their practice.
Do you ever think the problem might be original sin?
This is the ultimate question which I feel it’s impossible to answer, but if I do get to heaven by a circuitous route, as I suppose is possible, then I want to ask God why he didn’t give us a bit more information as to where original sin comes from. It is a problem, and in some cases it’s a dilemma, because in the inscrutable wisdom of God we’ve got to find a place for the process of evolution in thinking and practice which is the background out of which we can think of ourselves as better than we were, or think of ourselves as striving for an ideal.
But are you yourself certain of going to heaven?
I am certain that I fulfil certain conditions down here, heaven will be attainable and in the infinite mercy of God I think there’s a chance of forgiveness on the other side. I don’t claim to know much about it, however, and I’m a bit suspicious of those who seem to know more about heaven than they do about their next-door neighbours. ‘in my Father’s house,’ said Jesus, ‘there are many mansions; if it were not so I would have told you.’ What I think Jesus was saying was, don’t clutter up your mind with these impossible questions about the next world but believe that there is a continuity between this world and the next in which there is the same love and the same purpose and the same ultimate end.
You once said: ‘I believe the principles of Toryism, enlightened self-interest, are incompatible with Christianity.’
I have never dared to say you cannot be a Christian and a Tory.
Do you nevertheless doubt that Tories can in Practice be fully fledged Christians?
I’m quite sure they can’t. One can’t be a fully fledged Christian anyhow, but I think Tories are further off that attainment than other people. I get tired of denouncing other people as being unChristian, but what I’m prepared to say is this: the structure of Toryism – enlightened self-interest, market values and the concentration upon the individual – is not something that belongs to the Christian faith. Enlightened self-interest is in fact a rather kindly word for selfishness. Our involvement in the community is the essence of the Christian faith; individualistic emphasis in my judgement, are to be deprecated. The reason I have never been prepared to say that you can’t be a Tory and a Christian is that it depends very much on one’s definition of the terms, but I am absolutely certain that Toryism in principle is a contradiction of the Christian concept.
You reject the capitalist ethic totally. Yet you obviously believe very much in the practical application of Christianity, i.e. that the church should have relevance to modern life. Is it not unrealistic to expect to have an impact on the country at large without embracing some aspects of capitalism?
It all depends on what you mean by capitalism. I can accept the machinery of capitalism in some aspects of corporate living; I cannot accept the principle of capitalism as a worthy method whereby we conduct our public affairs. That could be regarded by some people as a bit specious, but you’re asking a very difficult question. I do not believe that the capitalist is totally bereft of moral principal; it would be impudent and stupid of me to say so. One has to draw a distinction which is not easy to draw between capitalism as a working programme and capitalism as an ultimate principle. I totally reject the second but I think there are necessary ways in which this very imperfect world we have to make use of the imperfect machinery until we can find a substitute for it.
Do you think we’ll ever find a substitute for it?
Not on this planet, no. That’s why I believe in eternal life.
Why is it so important for you to adhere to methodism, to serve under the banner of Methodism, when you clearly are at odds with at least some of the methodist tenets and are not wholly approving of its founder John Wesley?
No one who took the precaution of reading John Wesley’s life could totally approve of him. At the same time, he was a dynamic leader, and since I was brought up within the framework of methodism I see no reason to discard my background (even if I could). It doesn’t seem to me to be very important which particular club you play for, providing you play the right game. In that regard there is a first-class argument for multiplicity of churches with a common faith. One reason I’ve taken to the open air for the last sixty years is that John Wesley established the importance of open-air preaching, and in that respect I’m his dutiful son.
You have said that all statements to the effect that Jesus was the son of God are inexact, and that if only people could accept the humanity of Jesus the divinity would look after itself. This is something which doubters and agnostics would have no difficulty with, and certain humanists have always emphasized the humanity of Jesus, but the idea seems rather strange coming from a man of God like yourself. In a different century you might have been burnt at the stake for saying such things.
I quite agree. You’ve only to read your history book to realize how tyrannical has been the attitude of official Christianity time and time again. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is a perfect example of the way in which the official church has betrayed the gospel in the interests of the power which it was desirous of maintaining. Whenever there is an attempt to reconcile the kingdom of God with any particular regime, be it imperialism, or colonialism, or the capitalism of today, it simply doesn’t work.
There was a proposal some years ago that you should be ordained as a priest in the Church of England. That was abandoned in the face of expected Anglican hostility. From your point of view could such a step have been anything other than a rather desperate attempt at Church unity, and given the divergence of beliefs, would this not have rendered the appointment purely symbolic?
The answer is conditioned by the fact that I didn’t promote the enquiry. It was initiated by others, and I saw no reason to reject it in the light of what I believe to be the imperative need for church unity. I found a better way of expressing it later on in conversations we had with the Anglicans, but there was no reason why the methodists and the Anglicans shouldn’t come together in one church. After all, John Wesley was an ordained Anglican priest. It is imperative to avoid the most damaging of all criticisms of the church, that we can’t make up our own minds as to what we commonly believe and that we are separated at the point where the very concept of Christianity means unity. For me this is a desperate situation.
But do you think unity with the Catholic Church will ever be possible?
As things are at the moment, if unity means signing along the dotted line, that is out of the question. The hope of unity rests upon the ability of the Roman Catholic Church to abandon some of its cherished attitudes, and although there is some evidence of that already it is highly unlikely in my time. I’m not being cynical when I say that unity can be more realistically conceived within the framework of the non-Catholic churches, there being a certain intransigence that is part of the absolutist concept of Rome. It is not nearly as rigid as it was, but until they change their attitude on, for example, the ordination of women priests, there’s not much hope of progress. Female menstruation has been seen by the church as the time when a woman is impure, and you cannot have an impure priest. This is absolute rubbish, of course, and on this, as on many sexual matters, the church is back in the middle ages.
From time to time you have spoken of you allegiance to the catholic church. I know that you use a small ‘c’ and that the word means universal, but in view of the fact that methodists do not approve of various doctrines about the Virgin, about the intercession of saints or about the real presence in the Eucharist, how is a universal church possible?
It is possible if the unity does not depend on a vocabulary which is assumed to be infallible. I’m not interested in the vocabulary of orthodoxy. With regard to the Virgin birth, for example, Mark didn’t know anything about it, nor did Paul, nor the early Church, or the primitive Church. Jesus didn’t know anything about it either. It seems to me to be a waste of time to ascribe to Jesus some kind of authority and divinity which is totally unnecessary. That is the way in which I would approach these problems.
Have you never felt tempted to move up to the high church, to graduate from the church hall to the church proper?
Yes. I am high chapel, if not high church; that is to say I have a firm belief in the eucharistic worship is at the heart of the Christian practice of the faith. I should not feel able to go to Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon if I didn’t receive the bread and wine on Sunday morning. Someone once said to me, ‘I got to mass because it is the whole of Christianity in twenty-five minutes’, and there’s a very great deal of truth in that. Of course reality is far deeper than thought, far more than that which can be encapsulated within the framework of a doctrine. But I can honestly say that when I receive the bread and partake of the wine, that is a symbolic acceptance of my belief in the reality and the presence of Christ; unworthy as I am to receive it, I believe it to be the evangelical offer of salvation.
Can the Methodist Church or for that matter the Church of England survive?
They have already survived crises which would have destroyed other more rigid churches. There is an adaptability within the Anglican Church of which I very much approve. One thing I am certain of: the City of God remaineth and so long as we are in that city, there is a permanence which can defy the various vicissitudes and difficulties.
You had a crisis of faith when you were at Cambridge. Looking back, do you think the doubts presented a serious challenge in your life or were they merely a necessary path to the further consolidation of your faith?
Both. The doubts were very considerable, serious and hurtful. I had grown up within the close framework of a methodist tradition and when I went to Cambridge I was suddenly exposed. A friend gave me something to read about communism or rationalism, and it opened up a new world which was very disturbing. But it didn’t last very long and the decisive factor was that the requirement of faith was a necessary filling of a gap which couldn’t be filled elsewhere.
Your faith, and specifically your methodism, seems to be wholly a product of your parentage and background and upbringing. It was not something you came to by yourself or stumbled on by chance. In other words, it is very much an accident of birth. If you had been born in a Catholic or a Moslem you might have embarked on a very different religious and moral crusade. Does that ever worry you?
It perplexes me in the sense that I can’t put myself in a position of an entirely different environment. What I can say is that the changeover from the narrow methodism of my childhood to the socialist Christianity which I began to imbibe as a student was as fundamental a change as would have happened if I had started off as a Moslem and ended up as a Catholic. It was a radical and absolute difference.
Do you think that doubt is a necessary forerunner to the fullest kinds of faith?
Of course. You cannot believe unless you resolve doubt. Doubt is the precondition of questioning and enquiring. I have often been asked why I go to Tower Hill, why I go to Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon. It is because I believe in the fellowship of controversy. It is the only way in which we can deal with questions which otherwise accumulate in our minds or our make-up and are never resolved. There’s no such thing as neutrality, and doubt is the first way in which you deal with that neutral presentation of brute fact.
The logic of your faith, besides leading you to socialism, also led you to pacifism. Doesn’t the refusal to defend the right by arms if need be necessarily imply subjection to those who are prepared to use arms?
I believe we have yet to discover the power of non-violent resistance and indeed the power of self-sacrificing love. This is the only meaning I see of the Cross as distinct from the gun. The Cross of Jesus was his reliance upon the power of non-violent love, even when Pontius Pilate was perplexed by it, the disciples frustrated by it, and a great many ordinary people felt that Jesus was wasting his time and was no more than a lovable failure. Nobody can tell me that the way of non-violent love would not succeed, because as yet it hasn’t been tried. The essence of the Christian faith today lies in finding an alternative force to the force of guns, and unless we find it I think that the prospect of the termination of this human race is as likely as that of the creatures that have disappeared already on this planet because they couldn’t adapt themselves to the paramount need of living. We are in a very desperate position and in this instance I’m by no means a cheery optimist. I believe that there is a real prospect that we shall opt out of this life by the use of an ever increasing destructive force. The emergence of the nuclear age has emphasized this as nothing previously could have done.
Is it not the case that pacifists trade on others’ willingness to sacrifice themselves for the public good? Pacifists surely have a quiet conscience, but doesn’t someone else just as surely pay the price?
I don’t have a quiet conscience. In the cadet corps when I was a boy I was a bayonet-fighting instructor and loved it. I agree with you that if you regard pacifism as an easy option, it’s discreditable, but I hope by the grace of God I should be prepared to pay the price of the pacifist case as soldiers pay the price of going to war.
Whatever good may accrue from pacifism in the long term, is it not true that in the short term individuals will suffer terribly for those ideals – and those individuals only have a short term?
This raises a fundamental question. I don’t know very much about the long term, that is to say, I believe that the essence of the faith is that by doing things which are consonant with what is right, you release into the world forces which otherwise would be damned up. I think the man who stood in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square or those who decorate tanks with flowers and engage the tank commanders in argument are opening up in a way. I have been asked what I would do if the Germans invaded Kingsway, and I said rather facetiously that we’d offer them a methodist tea; those who haven’t appreciated the cathartic effects of a methodist tea shouldn’t underrate it. Of course, this is regarded by most people as just sill nonsense, but I do believe in one sense you can create an atmosphere of non-violence which is far more dynamic than the atmosphere of combat.
But who is to defend the old, the young, the vulnerable from the bully boy who is not open to rational argument? Are they to be sacrificed to a higher ideal?
The answer is that if you attempt to save people who are violently abused by the use of violence, the sum total of violence is not diminished. It’s no good telling me that you fundamentally protect people by the use of war or violence; you don’t. You can provide temporary asylum for them but sooner or later that asylum turns into a fortress.
If conscience is a reliable guide to action, as you have often stated, what about those who in conscience believe that blacks are inferior or the Pope is the Antichrist…are their conscientious objections to be respected too?
It all depends on what you mean by the word conscience. When somebody says he believes he was justified in killing, or stealing something, I don’t accept that as conscientious attitude. That sort of conscience only records your condition at the moment you consult it, whereas the whole purpose of a conscience is to educate so that when the particular environment demands a response, it’s an enlightened conscience which moves with the promotion of goodness and doesn’t just lie fallow until it’s called upon. When it’s called upon in that fallow condition it isn’t conscience at all; it’s prejudice.
You have stated that it is more moral to risk the evil of somebody else than to apply that evil in order to prevent it. Would you really have had Britain submit to the Nazis in 1940 with all the consequences? It is hard to see how they could have been avoided without armed resistance.
The answer is if you chop up the film of life into a number of stills, you can provide yourself with insoluble problems. We could not have done anything other than what we did in 1940; but we could have done something very different in 1940 if we’d begun to do it in 1930. We very largely promoted the Hitlerism which afterwards we had to resist. I don’t believe that you can at any moment, so to speak, isolate a situation; a situation is that which has developed from something that has gone before. We now have time to prevent the next war. We hadn’t time in 1940 to avoid the war that happened.
It will surely seem extraordinary, perhaps even offensive to many people, that you should blame the British for the Nazi destruction of the Jews and others. You said that after we went in to defend the Jews they were massacred – they were merely persecuted before.
That is the first time I have objected to something you have quoted me as saying. I always take great care to say that I abominate the persecution of the Jews. The Christian Church should always make that humble apology since we have behaved disgracefully towards the Jews. But what I’ve tried to say again and again is this: that to go to the help of a persecuted people by fighting a war that meant many more of those persecuted people were in Auschwitz than if we hadn’t fought a war. As a matter of fact, war exacerbates the problem you go to try and solve. Let no one accuse me of saying the Jews were getting on fairly well under Hitler; they weren’t, they were in a condition of persecution which was an abomination, but the Auschwitz camps were the result of the war in the sense that Hitler was then able to isolate the problem from his own people.
The nuclear threat is certainly very real but it’s difficult to understand how matters would improve by having the Western democracies surrender their weapons while leaving others in the hands of terrorists or fanatics.
The risk of peacemaking is of course tremendous but we are so accustomed to accepting the risks of warmaking as to be the victims of very imperfect thinking. To me and to an increasing number of people, the emergence of a new situation in Europe demands the recognition that change is by no means limited to changes in the political field of power. There are radical changes now taking place in the culture of modern generations, and I take great comfort in watching the way in which new ideas are laying hold of communities who were previously immune from them. This isn’t a complete answer, and I hope you don’t think it’s an evasion of the answer, but it’s about time we realized that the traditional concepts of dealing with the evils in the community manifestly fail when they are linked to the requirements of violence.
But the question is, really, that if you were a man of power, would you do away with nuclear weapons at this point in time knowing that others who are much more fanatical than you are, less democratic than you are, were retaining their weapons.
Yes. If I had the power then I should have been elected, and therefore there would have been behind my decision a community which was committed to it.
So you mean others would take the risk with you?
They would take the risk with me, and if that risk were generated within a community I believe it would spread like wildfire. The resistance to the communist regimes, which is the most remarkable thing to have happened in my life time, has come about because there has been a community which has taken a new road. I believe that is the hope of our survival.
You became a peer in 1965 and made the immortal remark that the House of Lords reaffirmed your belief in life after death. Is your seat in the House of Lords one which you occupy easily and happily, or are you ill at ease with the power and privilege which undoubtedly characterizes the Lords?
In some ways the House of Lords can be a very useful instrument in the propagation of ideas which otherwise wouldn’t see the light of day. I’ve had the opportunity of expressing my views on pacifism in the House of Lords and they’ve treated me with kindness. There is a value in the House of Lords, which is that it can be the occasion of an enquiry into matters which can take place one afternoon and can be reported in Hansard the next day. It isn’t the same as a general inquiry but it is a way of fertilizing the intelligence of the other House on matter about which they may be less informed than they should be.
Although you sit in the labour benches, does it never seem to you as if you’re supporting an institution which runs counter to the whole socialist ethic?
I have my temptations as of course many people do, but I must be very careful not to assume a degree of piety with which I can look down on these sinners as if they’re scoundrels. I have much to be thankful, for in the steadfastness and the attitude of socialists whom I’ve loved and revered and who have been an example and an inspiration to me, and I’m not prepared to be cynical even if you wanted me to be. But I would say this: that sooner or later the House of Lords should be abolished. In the meantime I’m prepared to make use of instruments which sooner or later will be out of date.
On one occasion you spoke in the Lords about the way opposition to restricting homosexual propaganda had the whiff of fascism about it. Do you actually approve of sodomy?
Of course I don’t. What I do approve of is the distinction between the condition of homosexuality for which you are not responsible, and the practice of homosexuality which can be bad. There is a prime case for saying that homosexuality is no more within the moral code than the colour of your hair or the size of your nose; what matters is what you do with it. The desecration of sex for the mere flippancy of enjoyment is one of the most dangerous and difficult of all issues, and at the same time I believe it’s wrong. The prostitution of the body either in heterosexual or homosexual practice is to be regarded as a sin.
But where do you stand on the question of homosexuality? If we follow the argument that it is a natural human practice, because human beings do it, will we not logically have to count everything that human beings do as natural…murder, rape, slander, ect., ect.?
The distinction between the satisfaction of an appetite and the refusal to regard that satisfaction as right or wrong is a question which has to be faced. There are handicaps to the perfection of life. If, for example, you lose a leg or an eye, these are conditions which have to be accepted because they cannot be altered. In this sense one has to have profound sympathy for the homosexual because he is condemned to a world in which what is the creative and natural function of sex is to some extent changed by the fact that he is not heterosexual. In my judgement that involves a discipline which he is required to exercise which other people don’t have to exercise. Far from blaming the homosexual who indulges in sodomy, I believe we have to have a great deal of sympathy with him; to condemn the thing he does but to recognize that he has a much more difficult way of dealing with himself than those who are heterosexual. That’s the sympathy. I do not believe it is impossible for a future generation to find the answer to what is now the insuperable problem of how a homosexual changes into a heterosexual if he wants to. There are of course many relationships between homosexuals which are entirely right. Indeed in the lesbian field I can think of many women in the church who have been denied the opportunity of marriage or have lost their loved ones and who with other women have formed relationships which are of benefit to society. I can think of dozens and dozens of women who have in a very real sense loved one another but have avoided the cruder forms of sexual satisfaction. Of course this is easier for lesbians and not possible in the same way for the homosexual male. It’s a very complex issue and when I criticize the church’s attitude it is because I think we have to be much more charitable and to realize that some people have enormous problems which other people don’t have to face, and that those problems are ineluctable in many respects. We’re in a shocking mess over this whole question, and I believe only the grace of God is sufficient to meet these otherwise intransigent issues.
What are your views about allowing homosexuals within the church to give expression to their homosexual love?
It depends what you mean by giving expression to their homosexual love. I think it would be wrong to baptize, so to speak, the perversities of physical relationships; they are to be condemned as ugly. The consummation of the sexual act between a man and his wife can be regarded as a sacrament, it’s beautiful. But in this very imperfect world one has to discipline oneself against misusing one’s faculties in order to provide a satisfaction which is impossible in the same sense that a married couple can find that satisfaction.
Do you believe sex is a gift from God to be enjoyed?
Yes, but to be enjoyed within the framework of a creative concept and not merely the idea of enjoyment for its own sake. It is important to remember that when, for example, it is said that the Moslem believes in that enjoyment, it results in the degradation of women. There’s no doubt about that in my judgement; the woman is the instrument to provide the means of enjoyment for the man, and therefore the whole concept of the inferiority of women is part of that claim that sex is to be enjoyed.
Despite your own ardent teetotalism and belief in the monogamous purpose of marriage you are said to believe that heaven might just contain some light wines and that premarital sex might just be tolerated. What led you to this concession? Was it an attempt to take on board the reality of the times we live in or was it an unhappy recognition of falling standards of morality?
It was a further understanding of the spirit and teaching of Jesus. The evidence is increasingly obvious that Jesus had a relationship with Martha and Mary which was in part sexual. The essence of any relationship I’ve had with other people has always contained something of sexuality within it. The question is, at what point does the sexual behaviour pattern interfere with the creative purpose of sexual relationships? I’m a teetotaller, but not because I believe there’s something necessarily wrong in the ingestion of a particular liquid. I’m a teetotaller because of the social environment of drinking which I believe inhibits a great many people from leading a good life. The same hold true of premarital sex. No one is suggesting that the couples who kiss ought to wait until they’re married. We have to be a lot more healthy about this, and in my judgement it would be better, strangely enough, if we didn’t think so much about it. I think there’s an obsession with sex now. Sex in its right place is very important, but not too much of it. I’m eighty-nine now, so I can talk objectively about this, although I can very easily become a hypocrite unless I’m careful.
Do you still desire women at the age of eighty-nine?
Yes of course, but it’s rather different. In any case I’m blessed with a marvellous wife. But I see nothing wrong in admiring a pair of good legs. Why shouldn’t I?
No, I think it’s a very healthy attitude, I’m not opposed to it at all. You take a very liberal view of prison reform. But is there any real evidence that one can reform prisoners in any great numbers? Should public safety not be the first consideration?
I think the prison system is basically wrong, and can never be improved to the point at which it can be acceptable in a civilized society. That raises the question of what we do with the person who misbehaves, and unless we are prepared to think about that matter honestly we shall go on perpetrating the awful system we have at present; putting people away and forgetting about them. Very few people in my judgement are suitable for isolation.
You have suggested that prisoners should be treated well, be given holidays, and even be allowed sexual intercourse in prison. Would prison then be any deterrent? A lot of people might actually want to go to prison under these conditions…
Whatever you do, there are likely to be people who abuse the system. But if you force me I would have to say I believe the evils of masturbation in prison to be greater than would be the dubious consequences of allowing prisoners who are married to have sexual intercourse. That on the whole would be better.
Are you totally against masturbation?
No. I think masturbation is an imperfect way of fulfilling a genuine impulse, and I’m not going to stand in judgement. It is a lack of self-discipline, but for people locked up for twenty years, I’m not going to say that masturbation is a crime or a sin.
You have practised open-air preaching for over sixty years now. It was forced on the first methodists, but what good do you actually think it does in a television age?
It offers a fellowship of controversy, and it remains the one free forum. I’ve enjoyed a lot of television, but I’ve suffered a good deal from it. That is to say, the necessary rules that govern television programmes do impair the kind of free for all which you can enjoy in Hyde Park. Open-air preaching provides a way to develop a particular argument in a real atmosphere in which there are no artificialities as there are in television programmes.
You have always pressed the need for man to be morally superior to his circumstances. In today’s world, with all the modern pressures, isn’t that just too daunting a task for most people?
Yes. That is why to ask them to do it on their own is an impudence. Most people are better able to face moral problems if they find somebody else is trying to face them with them. That’s the great virtue of the church, not so much the sermons preached but the comradeship of effort.
Does it ever strike you that you are in a small dwindling church in an increasingly secular society. What is the point of your mission unless it is primarily a self-fulfilling one?
I can’t distinguish between a self-fulfilling ministry and a public responsibility; to me they are both sides of the same medal. I believe that we are pack animals as distinct from isolated creatures who have no desire to run with the pack; at the same time we need fellowship, a word often misused. There’s nothing so dangerous as the high-rise flat, the singularity and individualism of so much of modern life. One of the few real advantages of the mediaeval village was that everybody belonged; even the village idiot was a member of society.
Do you believe ultimately that faith is a gift of God?
Yes, but then I believe that everything worthwhile is the gift of God, though not something which God hands out as presents to certain people who are entitled to receive them. Faith is the way in which you deal with questions that you ask. Faith is a leap into the dark but only in so far as you have something firm underfoot to be able to make it. You can’t leap out of a bog.
If faith is a gift of God do you think it is the duty of a minister to maintain a pious silence when it comes to something in which he cannot compel himself to believe even though he may wish to?
There is great value in preachers telling their congregations what they don’t know as well as what they do. The preacher who gives the impression of knowing everything is going to lose his congregation; and he isn’t worthy to retain it. There is a place for ignorance as well as the assertion of truth; a place for the confession that we are all sinners, doubters. Unless the preacher is like Jesus, a man among men, and unless he recognizes that there is a whole world in which we are all experimenting, I don’t think he can do much good.
Do you ever consider that even the most honest, decent, and well-meaning men like yourself may be mistaken in their view of the world?
Yes. One of the great advantages of speaking in the open airs is that you’re soon persuaded that you’re not omniscient. I have any number of doubts, but one of the values of the Christian attitude embodied in the trilogy of faith, hope and love is this; my faith can be pretty slim and my love can be pretty imperfect, but there’s nothing to prevent me hoping, since hope is a matter of the will. Faith is a matter of the intellect and the disposition, and love is the gift of God, but hope is something that you and I can do if we make up our minds. If you leave your mind to make itself up it’s highly unlikely to do so, but hope is that solvent which brings the various facts into a focus of opportunity.
Have you ever been wrong in the sense that you believed an idea, then changed your mind?
Oh yes, very often. For example, I was a teetotaller in the Methodist form of regarding alcohol as the devil in solution. I don’t hold that view any longer. Now I believe that temperance is required as is social responsibility.
Why has it been left to people like Mary Whitehouse to speak out on obscenity and related matters, do you think?
It hasn’t. There have been a great many people who have spoken out just as clearly but, by accident or achievement, they haven’t had the publicity. There’s a great deal of the leaven of the Christian proclamation that proceeds only to make fairly small loaves. I admire Mary Whitehouse immensely, but, if I may say so, some of us have been saying the same thing for very much longer than she has.
Do you approve of all the things she says?
Not everything. But I approve of the intention she has and the general thrust of her argument which is that there’s far too much dirt in the world of the media and the practice of people. My only criticism would be that in some cases there is a danger of doing more harm than good unless you can preserve an attitude of general charity. I’m not saying she doesn’t, but she is representative of some elements which are not as amenable to general understanding as others.
Now that you have reached the age of eighty-nine, are you concerned about the day of judgement?
I find it a waste of time to speculate how long I am going to last. I am more concerned with what I take with me to the next world than what my mansion in the sky or my hovel on the outskirts of the city of God will be in the next world. Most of my friends of my own generation are now dead. I’d like to see them again though I’m quite sure they’ve changed a good deal in the interim as probably I have. In my old age I’m beginning to learn about the virtue of living a day at a time, and believing that all things work together for good for those who love God. I hope at least that the next world will be as exciting in the sense of producing all kinds of issues and problems of which we know nothing now. I don’t want to be dull…sitting on a cloud playing a harp.
Setting modesty aside, would you consider yourself to be a saint? If not, why not?
The answer is that a saint is somebody who is on the right road with his eyes persistently fixed on the horizon of the kingdom. If that is a saint, then by the grace of God I hope to be one. But it’s a sheer waste of time to accord to oneself certain categories of goodness or badness; it is much more important to aim for what by the grace of God you can be. There is nothing so boring as people who feel that they have to be everlastingly telling you how good they are and how bad you are. Piety is a word which has fallen into disrepair, because true goodness is exuberant as well as faithful, and the exuberance is a part of goodness, and if you haven’t got that you’re about as useful as mutton.
The last question…have you any regrets?
An infinite number. At my age one’s sense of failures in the past is an interesting and solemnizing experience. You haven’t much time in which to put things right, which makes me say better prayers than I used to.